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Frank McKenna is a former premier of New Brunswick.


The Syrian refugee crisis has brought out the best in Canadians. Led by an inspired commitment by the federal government, the country has demonstrated enormous compassion and openness at a time of great need.

In part, this is out of sheer humanity but, also, it is because of a subconscious understanding that parts of Canada are dying for lack of population growth.

The government's decision to direct certain immigrants to certain parts of Canada allows us to dust off an old idea, that concept of a social contract, which is urgently needed, particularly in Atlantic Canada. It is not a coincidence that Atlantic Canada is especially enthusiastic about receiving Syrian immigrants.

Consider the situation now facing my home province, New Brunswick. In 2014, the province sustained more deaths than births for the first time since Statistics Canada began tracking the data in 1972. The region has the second-lowest fertility rate in Canada. In turn, the population is getting older; the Atlantic region has aged twice as fast Alberta since 1971. Our median age is now eight years older than in Alberta.

Why should the rest of Canada care? Quite simply, Atlantic Canada is the canary in the coal mine. Many other regions are headed toward a similar fate. An aging population costs more and the declining population base will result in less equalization, fewer transfers for health and education, less money raised from income tax, and less money raised from consumption tax.

However, the two most important levers to address this problem are controlled by the federal government: immigration and employment insurance.

These programs are difficult to design in such a way that regional sensitivities are respected. For example, while discouraging foreign workers might make sense in some parts of Canada, it has compounded the labour problem in the Atlantic region.

The provinces and employers are caught in a cruel bind. They have no control over the employment insurance system and even though, on paper, unemployment is high, they cannot find enough workers to satisfy the labour force requirements. One public official recently estimated that the entire $1-billion seafood industry in the region is at risk.

Predictably, provincial deficits have soared and in a desperate effort to stanch the bleeding, provincial governments have compounded the problem by increasing marginal tax rates to the point where skilled workers who commute to the west for jobs might easily conclude it makes more sense to move to Alberta than paying punitive taxes to stay home.

There are myriad solutions that can help, such as family-friendly policies, retention of foreign students, further exploitation of the resource sector supporting large construction projects such as Energy East, intensifying the development of the knowledge industries, retraining underemployed workers. But none of these initiatives has the potential to materially move the dial.

We do not need more federal programs or federal money. We need people! But the status quo immigration system won't get the job done.

Immigrants generally go where immigrants are. More than 70 per cent of new Canadians settle in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Atlantic Canada receives only about 2.5 per cent of immigrants. Without a larger base, it's impossible to attract an immigrant population. It's a continually reinforcing negative cycle.

The Provincial Nominee Program has had some uptake; yet, it has not moved the dial for Atlantic Canada. Again, immigrants go where immigrants are.

We need a new program dedicated to the needs of Atlantic Canada.

We do not have to reinvent the wheel. As far back as 2002, the immigration minister, Denis Coderre, floated the idea of a "social contract" whereby immigrants would be required to live in a community specified by the government for a period of at least three years, as part of the conditions for citizenship.

Allowing immigrants to convert a temporary visa into permanent status, once all conditions have been fulfilled, could pre-empt any legal arguments related to the mobility rights of individuals.

Critics will question why we should bring people to areas of high unemployment. But that is precisely where immigrants are needed. We need their entrepreneurship, their worldliness, their drive, their consumption and even their desperation. All of these attributes would be highly additive to the small communities across our region.

This model is not complicated or expensive. Ottawa could easily design a program unique for Atlantic Canada that could become a pilot for other regions depending on its success. It would be incumbent on provinces and communities to put together programs that would retain immigrants after they arrive.

Atlantic Canada is a warm and welcoming place to live. I'm confident that large numbers of immigrants would stay, refreshing our population base and providing a new energy to our economy.

My hope is the government of Canada understands it is facing a major collapse in the Atlantic region. If not this idea, what else might work? As for the Atlantic premiers, they need to make population growth their number-one priority and work together to create a new demographic destiny for Atlantic Canada.